The Taoist Farmer

I’ve seen the parable of the Taoist Farmer quoted in three different places in the past week. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s the story of how a very even-keeled man interprets events in his life.

Seemingly good things happen. Seemingly bad things happen. Either way, the farmer is unmoved.

There was a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, “May be.” The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, “May be.” And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.

Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “May be.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, “May be.”

Tao: The Watercourse Way, by Alan Watts – as quoted by The Unbounded Spirit

This story resonates with me. Years ago, I turned down the CMO role at a small company that went on to garner a lot of mainstream attention and hit a unicorn valuation. For years, I considered that my biggest career mistake and I beat myself up over it.

Then, a few years later, something went wrong (it doesn’t look like it was ever made public, so I’m not sure what) and the company was sold for scrap, at a tiny fraction of its peak valuation. So, had I really made a mistake? Was I beating myself up for nothing?

We all have these stories. Someone gets a big promotion and substantial raise, only to be made more vulnerable in the next round of corporate belt tightening. Or, they get laid off and their job search leads to a new role they like better, at a higher compensation level.

The lesson here is that the consequences of events and actions have their own consequences. It’s impossible to know the second and third order impacts of the changes we’re experiencing today. And that means, in practice, things are often not as good or bad as they first seem.

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